JELLYFISH (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

Probably the thing I'm most terrified of is jellyfish. Mary found this out when we were watching a movie in the theater - I don't recall which one, but there was a shark who was a bad guy - and suddenly there were jellyfish on the screen and my whole body seized up. I was holding her hand at the time because that's the kind of mushy stuff we're into, and as a result, I squeezed her hand too hard. After the movie, I tried to explain it to her - their monstrous appearance, their vicious sting, and above all the cold existential dread at the thought of something killing you entirely by accident, without malice, without even noticing.

I've never seen a jellyfish in real life. Never been in the ocean. Don't think I ever will! There are jellyfish there. Mary once said to me, "Well, if you're never going to run into a jellyfish, you don't really have any reason to be afraid of them, do you?" And I'm sure she's right, but I can't even look at a photo of jellyfish without starting to panic. (Mary, if you use jellyfish to illustrate this blog-thing, please don't show them to me.)

Besides jellyfish, the thing I'm most terrified of in the world is having a hit game.

I don't mean that I'm scared of a game doing well because of course, I want my games to do well. Partially I want this because I want what I do to find and resonate with an audience: it's impossible to create meaningful work in a vacuum. And partially it's because this is what we do for a living; as Dr. Johnson once said, no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.

What I'm scared of is a game that's really a hit: the kind of thing that sells tens of thousands of copies, the game everybody's talking about and everybody's playing. And given that I design weird, niche, often off-putting games, that's probably about as likely as me running into a jellyfish, and I probably have just as much reason to actually be afraid of it.

But the very things that would prevent my work from getting that kind of traction are the same reasons why the thought of it terrifies me. Our whole enterprise - mine as a designer, and ours more broadly as a publisher - is built on the idea of making peculiar games for peculiar tastes. And the problem, of course, is that most people frankly do not have peculiar tastes, and are less likely to be tolerant of the idiosyncratic. (Let alone paper maps.) As Dr. Johnson also said, Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.

He wasn't complaining about its length - though it is a long book! - but commenting, some ten years after the publication of that novel's final installment, on its staying power. He was dismissing it as a novelty, a fad. He was wrong about that, as he was about puns and about oats. Over two hundred years later, Shandy is still around, still influential, still quite funny, and still daring… for those few for whom it resonates. For everybody else, it's an old weird book, and they think the printer screwed something up on page seventy-three, whoa, who did they have working in quality control?

For any game, I want to sell as many copies as possible to the people for whom it will resonate. I'd rather have a thousand people buy a game who mostly love it, then ten thousand who mostly end up hating it, who want the peculiar bits flattened out into something that's more broadly appealing, conventional, and safe. That's why we sometimes go out of our way to warn people away from certain titles, and to highlight the bits that certain folks might find off-putting. Sure, we'd have a lot of money selling ten thousand copies, but we'd also have a lot more headaches.

More than that, our little company lives and dies by its reputation, on word-of-mouth. A thousand voices singing our praises is going to help us continue to grow - slowly, organically, carefully, allowing like-minded spirits to come to us. But ten thousand voices who aren't on our wavelength would hurt that growth - entirely by accident, without malice, without noticing.


  • My jellyfish story:
    25ish years ago I was training for a sport that required swimming in open water. To prepare I swam in small bays that had shark proof netting etc.
    On a rainy windy day I went to the beach in Sydney and began my ‘laps’ amazed at how empty the beach and the water was for this usually bustling location.
    After 15 minutes I felt tingling burning all over my body, and was having a hard time catching my breath…..then I saw them…all of them…thousands of tiny, small and large translucent jellyfish. Clinging to my entire body. Eek.

    I struggled to shore, wiped & pulled them off me painfully, and staggered into a storefront pharmacist on the boardwalk, who after an extended lecture about the prevailing wind and rain being my hint not to swim, gave me anti inflammatory medicine, and let me recover on his doorstep.
    They are out there Tom. Just waiting.


  • I would just like to state, for the record, as your printer, that you selling 10000 of any one of your games is not my biggest fear. It’s more of a biggest hope.


  • There have been several times in my life in which I have been aware of my closeness to death.

    One such moment as an adolescent was being attacked by jellyfish in the Atlantic Ocean, my entire body seizing up in pain, being unable to swim to shore.

    I was rescued by friends and strangers, but not before the panic had set in.

    That probably doesn’t make you feel any better about jellyfish. But maybe it makes that hit game seem so much better in comparison?

    John Owen

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